Monday, February 26, 2007

The Alaska Story - Part 5

Okay, the flu has kicked my ass. It kicked my ass all weekend. It was a good weekend to be sick though, we got over a foot of snow. Good shit. Anyway, because my head hurts and I'm still fighting this stupid virus, I offer you two chapters of the story. For those of you who care, a brief summary. At this point, our group of eight has split up, three going one way, five going another. There is a very bad summer storm happening, and we're just trying to get home. This part of the story does include me almost dying. Very exciting stuff. As soon as my brain gets better I will have new things to discuss.

A Separate Journey

Nearly three hours had passed since Dusty, Annie and Nick started out over the mountain. Dense, low clouds wrapped around the mountaintops and ridgelines as if some great giant was exhaling the smoke from his pipe. Although we didn’t speak of it, we were all wondering how our companions were faring.
All of the relaxation I’d enjoyed the day before was paying off. I finally felt well rested, and even though it was still raining quite heavily, my spirits were high. Seemingly, we were all feeling rested and ready for the grueling hike out. Since we were all very wet at this point, we walked through the creek thinking we would make better time. We thought nothing of our saturated shoes, packs and clothes. We knew we had warm showers, warm beds and dry clothes waiting for us at Chuck and Karen’s, so we weren’t very concerned about our present condition. Moody creek had risen surprisingly fast since we’d hiked in. What had been several inches deep, maybe six, was now easily 12, and in fact, several feet in spots. The speed with which the water had risen was astounding. Overnight the terrain around us changed completely.
Bears were still a concern, of course, so we once again made excess noise to alert all the animals of our presence. We even had a sing-a-long, of sorts, humming through parts when we couldn’t remember the words. We were enjoying ourselves, actually having a good time in spite of the horrible, cold weather and the fact that we were soaking wet. For some reason, I had playing in my head the entire Disturbed album “Believe”. I wasn’t aware until that point that I knew the whole album, but I was grateful for the distraction. I’m sure I would have been happy with “Dancing Queen” at that point, anything to keep my mind off the cold, the weight of my pack or the long hike.
We passed the drainage we’d used to get to the creek bed and, from that point on, hadn’t a clue what was ahead of us. We kept following the creek thinking it was the easiest and straightest route to our final destination. At one point I looked down and noticed something that appeared to be leather. It was halfway in the water and I examined it further. To my dismay I was poking (with a stick) at a piece of skin from some poor animal. I called to my companions to look at my discovery. At that point I looked to my left. Lying on the rocky shore was the intact skeleton of what appeared to be a moose. It may have been a caribou, but I wasn’t about to figure it out. The guys did take a closer look, however. They found relatively fresh bear tracks in the sand near the skeleton. That startled me to the core. I suddenly realized how exposed we were, and I didn’t want to end up like the moose. Although there was probably little danger, the bones were picked clean, my instincts told me we shouldn’t linger too long.
We approached a bend in the creek that turned sharply to the left. (I don’t know what direction, east maybe?? I promise it won’t affect the outcome.) We could hear water rushing and pounding over rocks. It sounded very much like a small waterfall. We couldn’t see what lay around the bend, and we were all hopeful that we would be able to stay on our present course without having to backtrack and find another route.
Upon rounding the bend in the creek we were met by high, sheer rock walls, which were brilliantly layered with multi-colored bands. There was a series of small waterfalls we’d have to negotiate our way through, but at that moment we were all struck breathless by the incredible beauty of the box canyon. We stood for a few moments taking in our surroundings and planning our next move. The next bend in the canyon revealed a seemingly endless corridor of cliffs towering above us. We realized that, at some point, we would probably have to climb back up in order to arrive at our desired location. Getting past our current location was our first challenge, however. The canyon walls protruded sharply from the ground, giving us very little shore to walk along. Because the water was very deep in places we had to climb over boulders to move ahead. We were forced to remove our packs as we balanced precariously on a rocky ledge to avoid falling in the water below. We crossed to the other side of the creek, as it’s banks had widened offering more space to walk along the shore. We were working as a team, and that was very gratifying. We helped each other over boulders and through deep spots in the creek. For what seemed like the first time, the five of us had bonded. What could have been the worst situation imaginable was turning out to be the best day of the trip for Husband and I. We had no schedule, we could take as many breaks as needed or none at all, and we were genuinely enjoying each other’s company.
I looked up to see a slide of rocks on the hillside above me. Something on the ground below it caught my eye and I paused briefly for a closer look. It was one of the most beautiful and unique rocks I’d ever seen. It looked as if someone had broken it and then glued it back together. It was almost pure white and about the size of my hand. It had an almost translucent quality, as if you could almost see through it. I decided to carry a bit more weight and take it with me. I have a small rock collection and I couldn’t part with my new treasure, it would be the perfect addition. I removed my pack once again and secreted my rock in one of its’ many pockets.

* * *
Many miles upstream and over the mountains, our three comrades were struggling to find their way through the low clouds and light snowfall. Somewhere along the way, probably while fighting through willow stands, Dusty’s compass had fallen off. Now they had no way of knowing what direction to go, aside from their instincts. The clouds obscured the mountaintops rendering them useless for navigation. The topo map was all they had.
Their motivation was simple, to get down the mountain alive. What had started as a challenging test of strength and stamina had transformed into a very real life or death struggle. While they were all uninjured and relatively safe, one wrong step, a wrong turn, the simplest of errors could bring disaster. Disaster was not something they were prepared for. Nick pulled Dusty aside for a heart-to-heart. He was practically convinced that they were lost and wouldn't make it down alive. Between bear attacks, hypothermia concerns and finding a way down, Nick was fearful for everyone's life. He made Dusty promise him that he'd be able to find a way down. Dusty made this promise and was determined to fulfill it.
They moved forward, not stopping to consider the severity of their situation. Although they had traveled many miles, they had many more left to go. Annie had counted herself lucky that we’d seen no bears on our in-bound hike. She, more than anyone in the group, was terrified of bears. Shortly before finding the drainage they would use to drop down to the road, a lonely bear cub crossed their path. As cute as they are, cubs are very dangerous. Not the cub per say, but the presence of the mama bear that is surely close by. Carefully, quietly and quickly they moved as far away as possible from the little guy, hoping that mom would never notice them. Breathing much easier when they could no longer see the cub, they set out to find a way down.
* * *
As we walked along the rocky shore of the creek we came upon evidence of life. There on the rocks was a makeshift fire pit and the charcoal remains of a fire. It was almost startling to see that we weren’t alone. For three days we’d been completely isolated, seeing not even a plane or helicopter. I thought how nice a fire would have been at our camp. We hadn’t been allowed to start one for reasons I’m still not aware of. Seeing no signs of the makers of the fire, we continued on our journey.
We had periodically checked our topo map and it appeared that we were moving in the right direction. We could no longer walk through the creek. It had widened and deepened significantly and now there was a rocky shore to walk along comfortably. At the next bend, however, the shoreline ended and was replaced by cliffs. The creek was much too wide to cross, which meant our only option was to go up.
(An aside: What distinguishes a creek from a river? Because a body of water is called a creek on a map doesn’t necessarily make it a creek in reality. Prior to Alaska I’d always thought a creek was a small body of water, easily crossed and no more than maybe six to 12 inches deep. Sure, it might rise by a few feet during heavy rains, but it wouldn’t develop rapids or other attributes of a river. Alaska has the biggest creeks I’ve ever seen. So, sure, call it a creek, but to borrow a phrase from Willy S., a river by any other name . . . )

We scrambled up the side of the cliff mostly on all fours because of the incline. The hillside was rough, embedded with rocks and shale. It didn’t crumble away like the one Mary fell down, thankfully, so we were able to get up with only moderate effort. When we reached the top and checked the map, at first glace we thought we were lost. Nothing in our surroundings matched with the map. We studied the map and discussed for a few minutes what we should do. While we talked we nibbled on Cliff Bars to keep our energy up. After further study of the map, surprise and excitement washed over us. We were much closer than we thought! We just had a short hike through the forest and then down to Healy Creek, we’d have to cross the creek then we’d practically be to the road. I think we all felt a certain sense of pride knowing that we navigated ourselves through unfamiliar territory and made it out unscathed. What a sense of relief. In a few hours we’d be warming ourselves by a fire and relaxing with a cold beer. Of course, that assumed that our three mountaineering friends made it down safely.
A moose trail wound its’ way through the tall grass in the forest. Adopting this as our new hiking trail, we found ourselves back in dense woods. We could see the creek below us now, which we were using to navigate. If we could find our way around the big bend in the creek, we could start hiking down to our last crossing through Healy Creek.
I contemplated the forest around me. How many people had been here before us, I wondered. Although it was dense, this particular part of the woods wasn’t at all oppressive. Even in the rain-darkened sky, this part of the forest seemed lighter, almost magical. There were downed trees covered in thick green moss. In fact almost everything was covered in moss. The intensely green environment coupled with my exhaustion was causing me to have hallucinations of sorts. The old trees had eyes and faces, and they were following our every movement. It felt as though there was a very real possibility that the gnomes and elves were watching over us. The twisted and gnarled tree roots created the perfect homes for them, and I’m sure I heard them whispering amongst the flowers.
Finally we made it to the rocky creek bed of the Healy. We took our packs off to rest for a while. We’d made good time and were slightly ahead of schedule. We would have to wait for an unknown period of time for our other three party members to pick us up once we’d crossed the creek, so we weren’t exactly in a hurry. As we rubbed our aching shoulders and relaxed our legs, we began scouting for the best place to cross Healy Creek.
Waugaman Village – Part 1

We stood at the confluence of two creeks. The Moody, furious and stong, dumped gallon after gallon into the Healy. The water thundered and pounded in our ears as we surveyed our surroundings. It appeared that this creek crossing was going to be more difficult than it had been on the way in. The silty gray water had collected snow runoff as it descended from its’ source. Not only was the water now much colder than before, it was moving extremely fast.
Finding the best place to cross the Healy was proving to be much more difficult than we thought it would be. The worst-case scenario, someone falling in, was foremost in our minds as we discussed the pros and cons of different potential crossing areas. The creek we’d been able to cross so easily just days ago was now a fully developed river. It had risen many, many feet since we saw it last. It’s quite intimidating, looking down into a freezing cold, rapidly moving river and trying to figure out how to get across it. I don’t remember feeling scared at all, I’m not sure if anyone else did. I just remember wanting so badly to get across and find a place we could just sit and fire up our stove for warmth while we waited on Dusty, Annie and Nick.

* * *

While we struggled with the river crossing, Dusty, Annie and Nick were fighting their way through dense willow and trees. They’d found Dragonfly Drainage, which they were using to get to the main road, but it was close to impossible to hike through. For hours they climbed over, around and through a wall of vegetation all the while hiking down an incredibly steep incline. They had to grasp at branches just to keep themselves from sliding down the drainage or into trees. I’m sure that this was the worst part of the hike for them. Though they’d endured bear and snow and 12 hours of hiking, they were now at the final leg of the hike, and it was by far the most difficult. I imagine that some inner voice within them probably said, “Screw it. Let’s just bomb down and take our chances.” I know I’d be feeling that way. But they were careful and calculated. They had made it so far without injury or incident and they intended to keep it that way. So, step by step, with cautious feet, they inched their way down the drainage.
* * *

The five of us discussed, at length, where to cross the Healy. We were struggling with a couple of issues. There was a part of the creek that was moving more slowly than another. But that part was significantly wider than the very fast moving part. The place with the faster water was seemingly that way only because it was two creeks merging into one. There was plenty of shore on the other side all the way along the creek, so we that wasn’t an issue. Husband remembered Dusty’s advice to him hours before. We needed to find a place to cross with accessible shoreline so that if the worst did happen we’d have a good chance of escape. We tried to test the depth with a stick and it was about the same depth in all places we could reach. Ultimately we had to choose between the shorter distance with the faster water, and the longer distance with somewhat slower water. We decided on the shorter distance.

We strapped our packs back on and prepared for the last leg of our journey. Before stepping foot into the water, we formed a pack line. Husband went first, then me, then my brother Nate, then Mary and finally, David. Each person took a firm grasp of the pack in front of him or her. This helped us to remain steady, keep pace, and frankly, we were told to do it. Husband gave one of his trekking poles (actually his ski poles) to Mary and one to me. When everyone was ready, we began to cross Healy Creek.

It is almost impossible to describe what it felt like to cross the Healy. The water that had been up to my mid-calf was now almost to my waist. The force of the water tossed around the rocks under our feet like rubber balls. Finding and keeping a strong foothold was fruitless. With every other step I felt more rocks sliding from under my feet and I had the sensation of not even feeling my steps at all. We seemed to get a pattern going however and after much effort, Husband had almost reached the other side.

At that point I could almost hear, over the roar of the water, my brother yelling to us. I strained my head in his direction to hear what he was shouting. When I finally made out his words I was dumbstruck. He was telling us to stop. Apparently Mary needed to stop, in the middle of the river, when we were almost across. To this day I don’t know why it was imperative for her to stop at the moment. I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore. I passed this information along to Husband, and with disgust and confusion, he stopped the pack line. We turned to see what Mary was doing and what she needed. At that moment Husband yelled out that he was losing his footing and was going to fall.

I watched my husband of only six months plummet into the icy water. Without thinking, instinctually, I grabbed the top bar of his pack. (Thank God for external frames.) I stood there, in the middle of the creek, the water pounding the backs of my thighs, praying that God would save my husband. I watched as his head bobbed up and down in the water and realized that I could kill him if I didn’t let go. I mustered all the strength I had and, apparently, threw him towards the shore. (I don’t remember the throwing, but my brother swears it’s true.) I didn’t even have time to see if he was safe because as soon as I let go of him, I lost my footing. I made a vain attempt to grab my brother’s hand before I was swept away by the rapidly rushing water.

The freezing cold water hit me like a block of ice. I was immediately chilled to the bone. As the creek carried me further downstream, I could see Husband getting out on the other side. He had made it! In silent horror I watched my husband and my brother, two of my favorite men on Earth get farther and farther away. Trying with every fiber of my being not to panic, I looked around me. On the opposite side of the creek there was a fallen tree halfway in the water. I was quickly coming to it and decided I should try to hold onto it to save myself. Just before the water could carry me past it, I reached out and grabbed the trunk. Rather than saving me, the force of the water pushed me underneath the surface and held me there. I knew I needed to let go or I would be suffocated. As I released my grip on the tree, the water began to spin me around. Husband was running down the shore as fast as his legs would allow. He was screaming to whoever would listen for help, at the same time yelling at me to get my pack off. I fumbled with the clasp on the front of my pack, my fingers now completely numb. They were so numb, in fact, that I couldn’t feel the clasp. I couldn’t figure out where to press to release it. Everything felt totally foreign with my frozen fingers. I yelled back to Husband that I couldn’t get it off. The river slowed down slightly, enough for Husband to catch up to me. I yelled to him again that I couldn’t get my pack off so he didn’t think I was just giving up. We made eye contact briefly and I just shook my head. I was absolutely helpless. I didn’t know what to do or how to remove myself from this situation. I wasn’t panicking yet, I wasn’t screaming or crying I was just helpless. Looking into Husband’s eyes, I tried to convey my unending love, my gratitude for him, my thanks for the few years we’d had together. I honestly didn’t know that I would make it out alive. The Healy Creek flows into the Nenana River, which was probably just a mile upstream. It would only take me a few minutes to reach it, provided I could survive that long.

The river kept swirling me around and I noticed in front of me water bottles floating on the surface. The force of the water had ripped from my pack everything that wasn’t strapped on. I had swallowed a fairly large amount of water, which caused me to begin burping. I found this very amusing and actually laughed aloud. Husband, although still running, had slowed down significantly. His legs just wouldn’t go any faster. To this day he can’t understand why his legs wouldn’t do what he wanted them to. Farther in the distance I saw David running toward me. As the river spun me around again, ahead of me I saw a set of very large rapids. They were the kind of rapids that looked as though large rocks were concealed below. But beyond that, I saw an eddy very close to shore. I knew that if I could get to the eddy, I would at least slow down significantly and perhaps be able to swim the rest of the way. However, if there were large rocks below the rapids, I would potentially be crushed before I could reach the eddy. I tensed my body and tucked it into a ball as well as I could, and prepared myself for sudden and horrible pain. The pain never came though. And sure enough, as I passed through the rapids I reached the eddy on the other side. The water slowed magnificently making it easier to control my movements. I heard Husband tell me again to take off my pack, but this request was quickly countered by David telling me to leave it on. I knew that David was making every effort to pull me out of the water. As I began to swim to shore I felt a sharp, ripping pain in my right shoulder. I couldn’t move my arm. The pain was excruciating. Thankfully I’d made it close enough to shore that I could finally touch the bottom. I used my feet to scoot myself as close to shore as possible and then felt David directly behind me. He grabbed once, then twice and made contact with the bar of my pack. He pulled me out of the water and onto the rocky shore. My body slumped as I realized that I was safe. Being in a certain amount of shock, I just sat there not knowing quite what to do. Husband ran to me and with tears in his eyes and fear in his voice asked if I was okay.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Alaska Story - Part 4

Winter in July

We awoke the next morning to find the rain still falling from the sky. To say the least, this was unexpected. Not only was it still raining, but the temperature had also dropped by about ten degrees. All of our equipment was soaking wet and we were fighting to keep ourselves dry. Annie and Nick were the only ones who were smart enough to pack rain gear, and they were now very thankful that they did.
As we gathered around our “kitchen” to make breakfast it was obvious that we had some decisions to make. The previous day’s hike had not gone as planned and we were now behind schedule. Dusty thought that we’d be much farther than we’d gotten and no one knew what lay ahead of us. At this point I was already thinking that we could just go back the way we came and follow the creek all the way out. Dusty was very determined to stick with the original plan of hiking over the ridgeline near Sugarloaf Mountain. I was concerned that if we stuck with the plan, we would find ourselves in another situation without water and many miles to hike still. I didn’t want to end up farther behind schedule than we already were, and frankly, I knew that hiking uphill through tundra again wouldn’t be any faster than it was before. I was very worried about slowing everyone down and essentially ruining the trip. We were in such a beautiful place and I found no shame in changing our route.
I should mention that Annie and Nick are super-athletes. They train for and run marathons for the pure enjoyment of it. Annie and her brother host a party in Washington State every year that involves Olympic-style competitions and relay races. True, it’s done while consuming large amounts of alcohol, but competition nevertheless. They enjoy a challenge and, in fact, almost welcome it.
In an effort to make a better decision about our next step Dusty, Annie and Nick volunteered to take a sort of scouting hike. They would hike along the route that Dusty had mapped and take inventory of what they found and whether it would be feasible for all eight of us to follow. The rest of us would stay behind and enjoy our surroundings.
The rain hadn’t let up by the time Dusty, Annie and Nick were preparing to leave. Carrying only what they needed for the day they started out from our tent area. We watched as they ascended the hillside, which was covered in willow and other dense vegetation. Our eyes tracked them as long as they could, and then, suddenly, they were swallowed by the emerald abyss.
While our comrades tried to find a way out, the rest of us tried to enjoy our time in the Alaskan wilderness. The rain was making our task very difficult however. Eventually we climbed into our respective tents and just tried to stay dry. One of the luxury items that Husband and I take backpacking with us is a Walkman with two small attachable speakers. We have a variety of cassette tapes that we also take, so we listened to Crosby, Stills and Nash and Grateful Dead while the rain pounded our tent. At some point we all fell asleep and took a much-needed rest.
When we woke up it was still raining. Our scouting group was not back yet even though it was nearing late afternoon. Husband and I climbed up to our eating area, had lunch and took pictures. We were ever vigilant for the rest of our group, scanning the ridgeline and hillsides for any sign of them. At last and around 4:00 pm Dusty, Annie and Nick emerged from the forest. They were tired and wet and didn’t seem particularly uplifted by what they’d seen.
As they told us about their journey I began to prepare dinner. I made some sort of pasta and Mary brought out her soggy vegetables, Swiss chard this time. The news was less than encouraging. There were no clear sources of water. They made pretty good time, but weren’t carrying their packs, which would be about ten pounds heavier after packing up wet gear. The hike out would be very long and we would be hiking most of the night and the next day. While I’m not afraid of challenging hikes, Husband and I were in Alaska on vacation and I wanted to enjoy myself as well. Packing up 70 pounds of wet gear and hiking for maybe 15 hours was not exactly my idea of a good time. During our discussion about what to do it became clear that I was not the only one with this opinion. When all was said and done Mary, David, Nate and I thought it would be best to go back the way we came. Dusty, Nick and Annie wanted to go over the ridge. The main concern for Dusty was that the cars were parked over the mountain and someone had to get them. Husband could’ve gone either way but decided it was best to stay with his wife. After all, we hadn’t even been married a year yet.
Reluctantly we decided to split up the group. Dusty was not at all thrilled with the idea, but that’s what we decided. Early in the morning at around 4:00 am Dusty, Annie and Nick would set out over the mountain. They would pack only what they needed, leaving many of their belongings for us to carry. Since they were going to have the longer hike, we offered to pack whatever they didn’t want to pack. A few hours later Mary, David, Nate, Husband and I would head out. We would hike to the spot we started from, or as close to it as possible, and wait for the other three, who would pick us up. We were carrying two-way radios so we would try to contact each other throughout the day.
Very soon after they ate, Dusty, Annie and Nick climbed into their tents for bed. They would have a long day and a very early morning. Although it was still early it was darker than it had been in several evenings thanks to the rain. The rest of us did what we could outside and tried to enjoy our remaining time. It’s pretty miserable to be wet, though, so we soon joined the super-hikers already in a deep slumber.
Husband heard Dusty, Annie and Nick getting ready to depart the next morning. He got up with them to help with whatever he could. Dusty had mentioned that the creeks and rivers would be higher due to the rain and snowmelt. He was especially concerned about us crossing Healy Creek, which was inevitable. As Husband helped Dusty filter the water they would need for the day’s hike, Dusty reviewed the river-crossing procedure with Husband once again. Find a good place to cross, with a strong, flat riverbank downstream. That way if someone should fall in they can easily get out on the other side. Form a pack line with each person holding onto the pack in front of them. Walk slowly but steadily through the water. Husband promised him we’d be careful and assured him that everything would be fine.
By the time they were packed up and ready to leave, I was awake also. Husband and I said goodbye to our trekkers, our stomachs tingling with concern and anticipation. They were packed very lightly, but were not taking even a tent or stove. The weather hadn’t changed, if anything the rain was stronger now. We watched them leave again, praying that they would be protected and safe until they reached the cars.
Husband and I began to pack up our things and take stock of the extra items we’d have to carry. We now had charge of the three BRC’s, Nick and Annie’s tent, Dusty’s tent, and various other items like their stoves. Soon everyone was awake so we took a breakfast break and discussed our strategy. We did have a map, which we were hopeful would help navigate us through areas we hadn’t hiked in before. Even though we were going back the way we came, we were not ascending the same drainage we came down so there would be many places we were unfamiliar with. Eventually we got everything packed up. Due to the rain and extra gear Husband and Nate were carrying packs that weighed close to 100 pounds. Mine was also heavier, though not by much. We took one last long look at what had been our home for three days and made our way down to the creek. After filling our water bottles we were on our way. I felt so strange, at once so excited, exploring a strange land with no guide, relying only on our experience and a map. On the other hand I felt scared a bit. We were in a strange place with dangerous animals and no guide with only our experience and a map. I did feel confident that whatever happened, we would make it out of the wilderness.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Alaska Story - Part 3

In Search of Sugarloaf - continued
From our vantage point high on the ridge, we could see for miles. Dusty pointed out Mt. Dora, which seemed quite distant still. Sugarloaf was practically parallel to Mt. Dora. We'd been hiking for several hours, and because the day was so warm we'd been drinking more water than anticipated.
Dusty began to survey the ridgeline beyond our rest area. The plan was to hike along it to, and then beyond, Sugarloaf Mountain. What the topo maps didn't show clearly was that the ridgeline was bisected by a drainage. Drainages are like streams that carry snow runoff from the mountains. They are very common in Alaska and are typically covered by dense vegetation. They carve deep clefts in the hillsides, which are very steep and difficult to negotiate.
Thus, we came to our first hurdle. Do we make our way down the drainage and try to find a way up the other side? But we're short on water and need to find a water source. The drainage would have water to filter, but would we be able to find a way back up the other side? If we could, how long would it take? We peered down the hillside to the approximate place the drainage emptied into the creek on the valley floor. There was plenty of water there, and we could follow the creek all the way to Sugarloaf. It was a straight shot on level ground, and we'd probably make better time. But hiking in a creek bed is probably the most dangerous place to hike due to the bears. After much discussion and consideration we decided to follow the drainage down to the creek bed and hike as far as we could.
We continued to follow the ridgeline until we were forced down towards the drainage. The hillside that led us down to the oasis-like drainage was covered in loose shale-type rocks. With each step rocks would slide down the hill below us making the hike much more precarious.
All at once we heard a yell and the sound of rocks falling down the hill. We turned to see Mary sliding on her backside all the way down the hill. David was following behind as close as he could without falling himself. When the rest of us finally reached Mary, David was carefully examining her elbow and knee, both bleeding. While she was, fortunately, not seriously injured she was shaken and bleeding. While David tended to Mary's wounds, the rest of us filled our water bottles, took pictures and rested briefly.
When Mary was ready we started our descent to the creek bed. The drainage was full of water and large rocks that were covered in moss. The trees grew so closely together that they created a corridor of lush emerald walls and a leafy canopy. Although we tried to walk along the sides of the drainage and on top of the rocks, this proved very difficult. Soon most of us were tromping through the water with reckless abandon, thinking nothing of wet socks and shoes.
After a steep and steady descent we finally reached the bottom and set foot on the creek bed of Moody Creek. From high above the creek had looked like nothing but a tiny trickle of water. It was not as small as it appeared, however. On either side of it were banks of river rocks or vegetation. The rocks were much easier to walk in than tundra. I felt a second wind, rejuvenation, and my legs began to carry me with a renewed vigor.
Of course we were all concerned about bears. Everyone was much more alert, and on the lookout for anything dangerous. After some time we had hiked as far up the creek as we could. Ahead of us, covering the creek was more dense vegetation that was impassable. Fortunately we had also reached the base, more or less, of Sugarloaf. That meant we could finally stop for the night. After more than eight hours of hiking we were all ready for that.
As I've said before, bear safety is priority one. This extends to the manner in which a camp is set up. Campers are required to use a triangular pattern where sleeping, cooking and food storage are all 100 feet from each other. (I think I remember that right, it couldn't be yards.) So before we set up camp we had to figure out where to sleep, eat and store our food. The spot we ended up in was not ideal. There was a large flat area covered in tundra where we decided to set our tents up. To one side of this area was a mountainside; to the other was the creek. We scouted a spot on the mountainside where we could cook. Because it was covered in round, volcanic rocks it was challenging to hike up and down, but it worked. The food was stored close to the creek.
After we set up camp everyone was ready for food. I had been elected camp chef, because I'm a good cook and I've had a lot of experience as a camp cook. If I remember right I made cheesy black beans and rice with tortillas (wrapped up burrito-style if you prefer). Food almost always tastes better when you're camping. I think Mary even broke out some of her vegetables, now crushed and soggy.
While we were preparing dinner, the first few drops of rain started to fall. None of us were that concerned as Dusty had told us about the occasional summer showers. Soon after we ate, our long day started to catch up with us. Our sleeping bags began calling to us even though it was still light outside. Of course it wouldn't get much darker so we called it a day and climbed into our tents. The rain, now heavier, sang us to sleep with a steady and wordless lullaby.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Alaska Story - Part 2

Alaska is a land of indescribable beauty. The mountains rip through the tundra in spectacular fashion climbing into the sky and standing as giant monoliths. During our drive to Cantwell we stopped at a viewing area already crowded with people. Because Denali, or Mt. McKinley if you prefer, creates its own weather it is often impossible to see the peak. If I remember correctly the peak is visible about 20f the time. We were blessed to arrive when the sky was clear and there were no clouds around the peak so we had a tremendous view of the entire mountain. It is a sight to behold.
Denali National Park encompasses over six million acres of wilderness. It is unlike any state or national park I've been to. The only permissible form of transportation is the bus system operated by the park. As with other forms of mass transit, you purchase a pass that allows you to hop on and off the buses wherever you choose. The purpose of the buses is not only for transportation, however. The drivers are ever vigilant, and encourage this from the passengers, looking for wildlife throughout the entire trip. When either the driver or a passenger spots wildlife, the bus stops for photo opportunities as well as some education.
Denali National Park also houses one of the oldest and still active search and rescue dog programs in the country. The park keeps about 30 sled dogs trained for wilderness search and rescue. Coincidentally Dusty is friends with one of the rangers who work with the dogs. Karen and her husband Chuck both work at Denali National Park and were kind enough to open their home for eight backpackers to sleep in after we completed our trek. Karen works with the sled dogs and, during the summer months, demonstrates the dogs' abilities with a modified sled on a dirt track.
We departed on an early bus, at this time only six of us. Nick and Annie were arriving later that day. Our tour of the park was going to be an all day affair and all of us were thrilled with the prospect of seeing grizzly bears. Sure enough, about 45 minutes into the trip the bus driver stopped suddenly and strongly suggested that everyone be very quiet. As the entire bus looked toward the left there was a collective "Oooo, ahhhh" as we saw the mother grizzly with her two cubs lumbering up the hillside. We were perhaps 40 yards away from these magnificent creatures, and the clicks from the cameras were seemingly never-ending. When our grizzly friends had traveled beyond our sight the bus once again rumbled down the dirt road. We would frequently stop and start to take advantage of another wildlife viewing or incredible vista.
The six of us took the bus to the last stop in the park. Here we walked for a short distance to a beautiful spot to eat lunch. After we finished eating we hiked for a while, climbing into the foothills that were bursting with small yellow wildflowers. At the top of a hill we sat on the spongy, soft tundra and watched the sky turn from a soft blue to steely gray. They say in Alaska, "If you don't like the weather, wait five minutes." Though the day began with sun, the sky quickly filled with clouds obscuring the mighty Denali.
When we were adequately rested we hiked back to the bus stop to begin the trip back. I saw so many wonderful things; it's hard to pick favorites. Among the most incredible was the pack of wolves on the hillside. It appeared that they had just killed a caribou and one large, black wolf remained at the carcass, hungrily snapping up his prize. Wolves are fairly uncommon to see in the park so we felt extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity. We also saw the usual suspects, Dall sheep, caribou, various ground-dwelling creatures, but no moose. I was disappointed because those are supposed to be the easiest animals to see. Aside from that, however, the tour was amazing. What an introduction to the wilderness we would soon be hiking through!
We arrived back at Dusty's house in Cantwell in the late afternoon. Before dinner we went to the trailer park/campground to shower. This was apparently more practical than all six of us trying to take turns in the house shower. We all seemed to linger a bit, knowing that it would be our last shower for a few days. Nick and Annie were arriving shortly and the next morning we were departing for the trek to nowhere.

In Search of Sugarloaf
It was late afternoon by the time we got back to the house, and soon after, Nick and Annie arrived. After the three-hour drive from Anchorage, and after our all-day excursion, all of us were ready for food and adult beverages. The excitement and anticipation of our trek into the wilderness of Alaska had been building all day. Now that the entire party was assembled, everything somehow felt more real. We were really going to do this, huh? We were eight people packing into the middle of nowhere, with the threat of grizzly attacks, with only compasses and topo maps and no trails to follow, to have fun.
We asked Dusty about the route we'd be taking and where we would end up; you know, the logistics. Dusty had reviewed the maps and had more or less chosen a route, but there was clearly no set "plan". The plan was not to be killed by a bear. Apparently that is the biggest concern while hiking in Alaska. It is not something that Husband and I have ever worried about while backpacking. Our one and only encounter with dangerous wild animals was in the form of a hungry raccoon ripping through our tent to steal trail mix.
In time, we were briefed on all the safety concerns as well as the specifics of the hike. Dusty figured we'd be hiking eight miles per day from one point to another. We were going to take three cars total. One would be left in a parking lot near to the place we would eventually hike to. One would be left at the place we were dropped off for Chuck to pick up later. Sue would drive some of us to the drop off point in the third. The goal of our trek was to hike to a ridgeline and follow it until we were very close to Sugarloaf Mountain. Because Mt. Dora’s peak was more visible than Sugarloaf, we would use it to navigate. We would eventually cross over the ridge and follow a drainage down to the highway and to the parking lot where the cars (both of them, thanks to Chuck) would be parked.
Excited about our trip and confident that we had a great plan, we tried to get to sleep early. We'd have to be up early to pack up our gear and find a place to start hiking. When morning came we gathered our things and drove to the elementary school close to Dusty's house. Sue worked at the school, which gave us access to the gym where we'd have room to spread things out and pack them up. The most challenging aspect of packing was trying to fit all the food in the BRC's (or BPC if you prefer) and still leave room in them for anything with a smell. Those stupid vegetables weren't helping either. ("But won't it be great to have fresh veggies with dinner?" My answer, "NO! We're backpacking for the love of God!") Eventually and by some miracle we did get everything packed. As usual, for Husband and I anyway, our packs were nowhere near light. Husband was probably carrying 70 pounds; I was carrying maybe 55, not too bad. With that, we were on our way.
After dropping off one of the cars we drove through the town of Healy and pulled down a gravel road. Dusty was looking for a good place to begin our hike. After driving up, turning around and driving back, he finally found what he was looking for. It was an opening in the foliage with not too steep of a drop into the forest. We said our goodbyes to Sue and started on our way. The sun was out and it was a gorgeous day. It seemed as though it was going to be a great few days.
In Alaska there are very few hiking trails. Even in Denali National Park visitors are encouraged to just hike through the brush. Alaskans view trails as an unnecessary impact on the environment. You're encouraged to hike in a more spread-out fashion, definitely not walking in the typical pack line. After leaving the road and making our way through the small swath of forest we came to an open area covered in gravel. There was a river (or creek if you're from Alaska) called Healy Creek (I still say river) ahead of us and train tracks behind us. Our first challenge was to cross the river. It turned out to be just knee deep on me and I jokingly said "Too easy drill sergeant!" upon crossing it. Nick thought that was pretty funny, I think especially since he is a cop in Concord. We took the opportunity to filter water at Healy Creek since we didn't know when our next chance would be. Husband and I, and Dusty had water filters, but even with two good ones it takes a long time to filter water for eight.
I will say right up front that the hike was much more difficult than I anticipated. Although I hiked as fast as I could, I'm afraid there were times when I was the weakest link. After crossing the river we started our ascent up to the ridge.
Almost every time one of us looked down we saw the evidence of bears. Their paw prints were everywhere. This was both thrilling and terrifying. On the one hand we were in Alaska to see wildlife in a wilderness setting. On the other, we didn't want to die. Remembering the safety tips we'd learned, we made a lot of noise throughout our journey.
The hike up the hill, the very steep hill, was grueling. Keep in mind that you're not walking on dirt or gravel or anything that you're used to hiking on. Tundra was the bane of my existence on that hill. I kept half-hoping that it would swallow me up and deliver me from my misery. Walking through tundra is a lot like walking through snow. It is the texture and feel of moss, though much thicker. And below the tundra are holes that you just sink into. I stand four feet, eleven inches. While negotiating my way up the hill I was sinking up to my knees in some places, grabbing onto whatever branch or brush I could find to pull myself out and keep going. Being the shortest of our group I got the feeling that I was the only one struggling with this particular challenge.
Tundra eventually made way to more solid ground the higher we climbed. After a few hours we stood on top of the ridge, feeling the endorphins pumping through our bodies, and the emptiness in our stomachs. It was time for lunch. We sat on the hillside, the sun smiling upon us, and ate slowly. We were enjoying not only each other's company, but also the complete isolation we were in. There was nothing and no one around for miles. The electric lines we'd passed hours ago were barely visible from our perch on the mountainside. We heard no cars, no people, nothing but the wind rustling in the trees and the birds calling to the wilderness.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Alaska Story - Part 1

After much thought I have decided to post the Alaska story. It is long and so will be posted in parts. I don't think that I'll post all the parts right after another, but rather will spread it out over the next several weeks so I can still post other stuff. This version of the story has already gone through many revisions, and I may decide to make more as I post. But I hope you enjoy reading it. I certainly enjoyed writing it. Here goes!

The Beginning

My brother attended a university in the East Bay area of California. One of his roommates for practically the entire time he lived in the East Bay was Dusty. Dusty originally hails from Alaska. He is so proud of his state and jumps at the chance to talk about it or show pictures. He comes from the small town of Cantwell, very close to Denali National Park. Sometime in late 2002 he approached several of his friends about planning a backpacking and kayaking trip to his home state. My husband and I being outdoor enthusiasts needed no persuasion. We were in from the beginning. In addition to Husband and I there were my brother Nate, Nick and Annie, Mary and David and Dusty, of course. He would serve as our guide during the backpacking portion (the only part Husband and I could go for).
It was difficult for all eight of us to meet prior to our departure. A few of us were able to meet and strategize here and there, but it wouldn't be until we arrived in Anchorage that we met our traveling companions. Dusty had "hand-picked" a select group of people whom he thought would both enjoy the trip and possessed the physical and emotional strength necessary for strenuous hiking. The only thing we really knew was that we would be backpacking for three to four days somewhere in Alaska.

The Arrival

Husband and I arrived in Anchorage close to midnight in the beginning of July. The first obvious sign that we were in Alaska was that it was still light at midnight. Dusty, Nate, David and Mary were already settled in to the hotel room we were sharing. After a late meal at the all night diner we got a few hours of sleep before driving to Cantwell. Annie and Nick were meeting us two days later at Dusty's house.
About halfway through our drive we stopped at a "super store" to buy our food and additional supplies. We had already stopped at the REI in Anchorage, but it seems like there's always something you forgot. My first twinge of concern and uncertainty occurred in the super store.
Because Husband and I are avid backpackers, we've learned through lots of trial and error what works and what doesn't. We've also learned what our limits are in regard to the weight of our packs in relation to the difficulty and length of our hike. If we're only going a short distance to basically camp for the weekend, we've been known to pack in ridiculous amounts of liquid refreshment because we can.
In this situation we knew we had limited amounts of space for food because everything for all eight of us had to fit into three bear proof/resistant canisters. Let's just say that some of us knew what that meant and others didn't. The end result is that we walked out of the store with three days worth of vegetables, including Swiss Chard, which were intended to come with us into the wilderness. To say I was confused is an understatement.
At long last we arrived in Cantwell and pulled into the gravel driveway of Dusty's childhood home. His parents own a tourism business and run it out of the house. The sun was still lingering in the late afternoon sky, lighting up the cottonwood puffs dancing through the air. I remember feeling an intense peace and relaxation being so far away from the worries of my real life. We were welcomed into the adorable log home and each found our sleeping quarters. Before dinner we decided to take a stroll around the property.
* * *
Dusty's childhood home is situated very near a river. The gravel road that passes his house leads down to a walking trail along the river. In mid-July the air was heavy with the fragrance of Fireweed, a bright pink, sweet-smelling and beautiful flower. As I walked down the path I tried to take it all in; the smells, the sounds, the absolute serenity that I felt.
Dusty is a two-time Jr. Iditarod champion. He still has two of the dogs from his team, Jazzy and Irma. The dogs accompanied us on our walk, excited to see their long-lost master again. My internal bliss was suddenly interrupted when I heard Dusty yelling at the dogs.
"Dammit Jazzy!!" He then called out to the rest of us, "Porcupine! The dogs got into a porcupine. I've gotta go back."
Dusty started back toward the house and, of course, the rest of us followed. I'd never seen the result of a dog-porcupine encounter and I don't think I'd like to again. It was something out of a horror show. Jazzy's entire mouth and most of her face was unrecognizable. There were quills pointing out from seemingly every orifice including underneath her tongue. Husband and Nate helped Dusty and Sue (Dusty's mom) pull the quills from the dogs for over an hour. Although Jazzy got the worst of it, Irma suffered some minor damage as well. After carefully and thoroughly removing all the quills we resumed our walk to the river. This was our first clue that we should expect the unexpected.
Dusty's parents have lived in Alaska for many years. When Dusty was born, the log home he lived in didn't yet have electricity or indoor plumbing. Gary and Sue have since expanded on their one-room cabin and they added electricity when Dusty was eleven. They've had indoor plumbing for a long time now, but the outhouse is still used with some frequency. The composting toilet inside the house wouldn't handle the capacity of eight people so we all got to have the outhouse experience. Let me just say, if you ever have occasion to use an outhouse do not lock the door from the inside. Apparently you're meant to keep the door open so people know it's occupied. And almost locking yourself inside an outhouse is really no fun, trust me.We barbequed dinner that night and stayed outside talking and drinking until we had to force ourselves to bed. It's so easy to stay awake since it's light for so long. But we had to be up early the next day for our adventure in Denali National Park.

Something Funny

Until my brain wakes up and I can think of something fascinating to share, here is a hillarious bit of something fun. I found it on eBaum's World ( Hope you laugh as hard as I did.

TO: All Employees
RE: Swearing at work

It has been brought to management's attention that some individualsthroughout the company have been using foul language during the courseof normal conversation with their co-workers.Due to complaints received from some employees who may be easilyoffended, this type of language will no longer be tolerated.We do, however, realize the critical importance of being able toaccurately express your feelings when communicating with co-workers.Therefore, a list of 18 New and Innovative "TRY SAYING" phrases havebeen provided so that proper exchange of ideas and information cancontinue in an effective manner.

1) TRY SAYING: I think you could use more training.
INSTEAD OF: You don't know what the f___ you're doing.

2) TRY SAYING: She's an aggressive go-getter.
INSTEAD OF: She's a f___ing bit__.

3) TRY SAYING: Perhaps I can work late.
INSTEAD OF: And when the f___ do you expect me to do this?

4) TRY SAYING: I'm certain that isn't feasible.
INSTEAD OF: No f___ing way.

5) TRY SAYING: Really?
INSTEAD OF: You've got to be sh___ing me!

6) TRY SAYING: Perhaps you should check with...
INSTEAD OF: Tell someone who gives a sh__.

7) TRY SAYING: I wasn't involved in the project.
INSTEAD OF: It's not my f___ing problem.

8) TRY SAYING: That's interesting.
INSTEAD OF: What the f___?

9) TRY SAYING: I'm not sure this can be implemented.
INSTEAD OF: This sh__ won't work.

10) TRY SAYING: I'll try to schedule that.
INSTEAD OF: Why the f___ didn't you tell me sooner?

11) TRY SAYING: He's not familiar with the issues.
INSTEAD OF: He's got his head up his a__.

12) TRY SAYING: Excuse me, sir?
INSTEAD OF: Eat sh__ and die.

13) TRY SAYING: So you weren't happy with it?
INSTEAD OF: Kiss my a__.

14) TRY SAYING: I'm a bit overloaded at the moment.
INSTEAD OF: F__ it, I'm on salary.

15) TRY SAYING: I don't think you understand.
INSTEAD OF: Shove it up your a__.

16) TRY SAYING: I love a challenge.
INSTEAD OF: This f___ing job sucks.

17) TRY SAYING: You want me to take care of that?
INSTEAD OF: Who the f___ died and made you boss?

18) TRY SAYING: He's somewhat insensitive.
INSTEAD OF: He's a pr_ck.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

In It For The Money?

I've been reading, as per usual, my daily gamut of blogs today. I was directed to an article via Opinionista's blog that discusses anonymity amongst bloggers. One of the quotes from the still anonymous was that every blogger is in it for the money, or at least the pursuit of it.

This puzzles me. While I've gathered that many bloggers are also aspiring writers, some in the midst of book deals and chapter completion, is this really true of all of them? This startling revelation has caused me to question why I post here, why I started writing this blog.

In truth I find writing to be very therapeutic. I have thoughts, ideas, rants, stories to get out of my head, and writing helps me to do that. My head will sometimes become very cluttered with both the mundane and serious crap of daily life. I need an outlet for all of that crap. I didn't start writing this because I thought anyone would actually read it. Much like my tattoos, it's a very personal expression.

So the fact that anyone at all reads this is fascinating to me. I'm certainly glad to entertain people with my stories and my life. I hope that you gain some sense of personal satisfaction that you aren't living it. Just kidding, it's not bad at all. Some of my posts I would consider to be boring and mediocre writing at best. Maybe I should begin to put more effort into my writing. Start drafts and have them proofread prior to publishing them. Maybe then I would earn the respect and admiration of the blogging community.

WTF?! I couldn't imagine doing this for someone other than myself. Much like singing, it's something I truly enjoy doing. To do it for the purposes of compensation would destroy my love of it. It warms my heart to think that someone enjoys reading what I post here. Just as it warms my heart that people enjoy hearing me sing. That is compensation enough for me. So please count me out of "every" blogger, I'm an entity unto myself and I don't do this for the money.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Drill Me

I got my first tattoo when I turned 18. It was, and still is, one of the most exciting days of my life. Of course now my wedding is up there too, but there's something about getting your first that you never forget. I've since gotten two more and am working on my next one.

My first tattoo is small, about the size of a quarter, on my lower abdomen. It is a koi that I drew, the inspiration being the cover of my favorite book when I was a child.

Let me preface this post by saying that I believe tattoos to be extremely personal art pieces. And while I may someday get arm or leg tats, my tattoos are for me and no one else. If no one ever sees them, that's fine with me. I'm not trying to prove anything to anyone. And on the flip side, if I'm not "hard" enough because I don't have highly visible ink, that's fine too. I'm not trying to be hard either. So, because my tattoos are so personal, it takes me a long time between them to create my next one. Oftentimes it takes several years of thinking, researching, drawing, re-drawing until I finally have what I want.

In June of 1994 I was 18 years old and had just graduated high school. I had wanted a tattoo since I was 12 or 13, and had been planning and drawing it since then. My friend Darcy's sister Erin was a few years older than us and already had several tattoos. She took me to Midnight Tattoo, which was located behind The Regency Theater, a XXX movie house. (For the record, yes I've been there, that's another story.) Juan was her guy. He was a great artist, very talented tattooist. I showed him my drawing, he said he could do it, he checked my ID and had me go in the back to take off my shorts and wrap myself with a towel.

I came out to his table and laid down in front of him. He was a handsome guy, bald and heavily tattooed. His daughter's name was beautifully scribed across his neck. Juan asked me if I was ready and I nodded that I was. He turned on the radio and "Girls" by the Beastie Boys drowned out the buzzing of the tattoo gun. About half way through he asked me if I was okay because I hadn't moved or made a sound since he started. I was fine, I don't remember it hurting at all. About 30 minutes later I was walking back out into the hot California sun with my new tattoo covered with gauze and instructions on how to keep it clean. I was ecstatic.

Years went by, I moved out of state and went to school. During my time in school I began thinking about my next tattoo. I decided on dragons, Asian influenced dragons. At the time I didn't feel comfortable tackling the task of drawing them. I like to draw but I'm not wonderful at it. And especially something as seemingly complex as dragons I figured I would leave to the professionals. During this time, however, I designed the piece in my head, pretty much down to the last detail.

In 1998 I graduated from college and moved back to California. I ran into Husband but he wasn't my husband then, we knew each other in high school, and we started hanging out again. He played indoor soccer with some other people I knew from high school as well as some people I didn't know. One of these people, Scott, had a friend, Glen, who owned a tattoo shop up in Bellingham, Washington. Glen was going to be making a trip down to California and wanted to line up some work while he was down. This was my opportunity to have the dragons done.

When Glen arrived in town we went over to Scott's and I looked through Glen's book of art. I found dragons similar to the ones I had in my head. I explained what I wanted to Glen and he drew something up that night. The next day Husband, our friend Sean and I went rafting all day. We went straight back to Scott's when we were through. Glen showed my what he'd drawn and it was perfect! Originally I wanted the dragons to be holding Samurai swords but Glen explained that it really wasn't that feminine and he thought it would look better without them. I agreed and have not been sorry that I did.

Glen had a couple of tattoos to do before he got to mine. But when he did, wow, he did great work. His technique was gentle yet fast. Two hours later I had my newest piece on my lower back. Yes, a tramp stamp. Of course, it wasn't called that at the time, and I wouldn't have cared anyway. I have big plans for my back and this was just the beginning. Glen did an excellent job and I relished looking at my dragons in the mirror. Husband got his one and only tattoo to date, a frog sitting on top of the world, that night as well.

Almost immediately I started thinking about my next one. But it would be the scariest, most horrific experience of my life that would ultimately give me the inspiration.

In July of 2002, Husband and I had been married about six months. We took a backpacking trip with six other people to Alaska. We were caught in a freak snow storm and the creeks and rivers rose several feet overnight. I was swept away by the water while we were crossing a river and almost drowned. No exaggeration, no lie, scary, scary shit. When I'd had a chance to process everything the idea came to me in an instant, like a light bulb had turned on. I would get a phoenix, an Asian influenced phoenix.

I began researching and finding pictures I could use as ideas and guides to help me in drawing it. I found the perfect picture, what I had pictured in my head, on an ancient Chinese plate dating to 1500 b.c. I didn't have the plate, but a picture of the plate. I drew the phoenix over and over until I finally had something I liked. I held onto this picture for a few years until Husband and I moved into the house we remodeled.

We spent just over a year flipping a house in the valley. Nearby was a head shop/tattoo parlor. One summer night when we were basically done with all of the work, Husband suggested we take my drawing up to the shop and see what they could do. Crazy Joe was the artist at this particular shop, and he looked every inch his name. He had long gray hair with matching handlebar mustache. He had most likely done some time, probably for a drug related charge I'm guessing. Maybe petty theft. But, he did great work. His portfolio was amazing and he was ready to do the work that night.

The phoenix was to be placed directly above and in between the dragons. I showed him both my drawing and the picture of the plate. To my surprise he said he'd be able to take a copy and draw a stencil directly from the plate. I loved the idea since the picture on the plate was really exactly what I wanted. I sat down in his chair and he began to drill.

Now, I'll tell you the truth. This one was pretty painful. It's about the size of a small desert plate, maybe a saucer, and is in the middle of my back. That's what hurt the worst, when he went over my spine. There's not too much there in the way of padding, not like the lower back. And there were times I was biting on the chair from the pain. But not a peep did I make, I took it like a champ. Four hours later I was gazing upon the most beautiful phoenix. It goes perfectly with the dragons.

So now everything is coming together and it's becoming easier for me to visualize what I want my back to look like. My next piece will be a chrysanthemum with the outer petals turning into flames. It will go beneath my neck and in between my shoulders. My problem is that I don't draw flowers or flames. And because all of my pieces are Asian in nature, I want to keep that same theme. Eventually I would like smoke coming up from below the dragons, following up the curves of my waist and up to the flower. So, if anyone out there is so inclined you can feel free to send me flames, at least to study and attempt to draw. Just think, your art could go on my body. I promise I'll send pictures.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Motocross Madness

One of the things that Husband likes to do is ride dirt bikes. Unfortunately he doesn't own one now, but we have friends who have spares so he can ride. I think it's great for him. It's good exercise, good therapy, good all the way around. Our friend KB is an amazing rider. He's one of those guys who looks like he was born on a bike. He makes it look easy.

I get the whole dirt bike thing. I ride, though not like the guys do. I'm not that good. But I completely understand the appeal of riding. What I don't get is the day long preparation that happened on Saturday.

One of our friends, Matt, lives with his dad a few miles away from us. (He used to live with us too, but that's another story. Fortunately it ended better than this last go round and we're still friends with him.) Matt's dad is a packrat of the highest order. His house and the property around it are littered with every manner of car, boat, dirt bike, motorcycle, tool, you name it and Tom probably has it. Whether he can find it is another story.

So Husband had to go over to Matt's to get the bike ready for the ride they were going to take on Sunday. Husband and I had a lovely lunch with my parents and brother in a pretty shi-shi restaurant on Saturday. We were both dressed in our "going out" clothes. I even wore a belt that matched my shoes, c'mon. After lunch we drove straight to Matt's house to work on the bikes. At this point it was like 2:00 pm. As soon as I tried to walk up the driveway I wished I'd gone home to change. I believe I've mentioned before that I'm 4'11". Because of my height deficiency I often wear what I call "tall shoes". Typically these consist of sandaly type shoes with like a 4" lift. Okay, maybe only 3". Regardless, they are not the shoes you want to be wearing when you're walking up a steep gravel driveway. Thankfully I managed not to fall at any point during the day. Considering I was drinking tequila all day I'd say that's pretty good.

So the guys got to work on the bikes. KB's bike needed a new shift lever and some other random shit. I don't know what was going on with the bike Husband was going to ride. They had the carburetor all torn apart, I don't think they really knew what was wrong with it either. I mean, you can imagine, right? Five guys working on bikes together, getting shit-faced at the same time. Testosterone being what it is, tempers are bound to flare. No one got into it, but people were starting to get a little cranky.

Guess who else was starting to get cranky when it's three hours later and the sun is going down and it's getting cold and I'm still in my tall shoes? Yeah, me. I was buzzed on tequila, freezing cold, tired of watching bike repair 101, and I wanted to go home. Frankie was kind enough to drive me there, so I took a shower and passed out next to the wood stove.

And I'm thinking to myself while I'm in the shower, is it me? Maybe I am the jerk for not wanting to stay at Matt's. Maybe a good wife would just sit there and wait until whenever. Okay, so I'm not a good wife. I'll take that. I happen to think the level of ridiculousness involved in a day-long dirt bike riding preparation is extremely high. It doesn't seem like it should be that complicated. When KB goes riding he loads up his bike, makes sure he has gas, and goes. There's no day before spent cleaning or fixing or whatever. Tom and Matt are neurotic, that's what's going on. They're both freaks about their shit and seemingly like the preparation and detailing of their toys better than actually using them. They're constantly working on the bikes or the boat or the waverunners, but they never use them! It's madness.

Sunday morning KB and Husband left at 8:45 am to go riding. I walked around the lake near our house, all 8 miles. Ben and I (Ben's our dog) left the house at 9:00 am and started hiking. It was great. I took a couple of beers and some water and took my time. I stopped a couple of times and had a beer and a smoke and enjoyed the wonderful sunshine. By the way, my dog is the best dog in the world. He's so bad ass. He walks without a leash and I never have to worry about him. He's on voice command, he doesn't bother people, just minds his business and keeps walking. But here's the best part. I stopped at the peninsula and laid down on top of a picnic table. Ben laid down next to me and I started to doze off. Ben started to bark because a guy on a bicycle was rolling up. He stopped barking when he saw that the guy wasn't going to bother me, but that's what I love. My doggie protects me and it makes me feel safe. Anyway, it was a great hike. I got back to the house around 2:30 pm and Husband had not called.

Now, I knew that I had a choice. I can be pissed off that he is choosing to be a horse's ass and not just giving me a head's up about what he's doing, or I can let it go. I chose something in the middle I think. While I was cleaning, again, I had angry music on (Lateralus, Aenima, And Justice for All, Believe) as loud as I could take it, which is loud. That helped some. At 4:30 when Husband finally called I could talk to him without being a bitch. At 6:00 when Husband and KB got home I was pretty much over being mad. I didn't want to start an argument. And while I still think it's very inconsiderate to just leave me wondering where he is for nine hours, I guess I just didn't have it in me to say anything.

The funny thing is that the guys got out to the place where they were riding and Tom and Matt spent all day working on the bike Husband was supposed to ride. Apparently it wasn't running right so they took it all apart again and Husband only got to ride for like an hour. I had trouble feeling too sorry for him, but I faked it pretty well.

KB says next time I'm going too. We'll see about that. I'm not sure I have the wherewithal to spend two days working on bikes.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Skunk Suicide

I've noticed of late an alarming number of skunks laying on the roadside, guts strewn all over the street. I've begun counting the dead skunks on my way to work, and I believe I counted at least 12 this morning. This has lead me to wonder, are the skunks suffering from seasonal depression? Have they decided en mass that they can no longer live with their odor? Why do the skunks want to kill themselves?

It's fairly disturbing to see the sheer number of skunk carcasses in the road. What is more troubling is having to practically drive over a freshly killed skunk. The smell is overwhelming. It almost brings tears to my eyes and I have to stop breathing for a moment from the stench emanating from the dead rodents. It's horrid. Virtually every five miles, maybe less, there is another dead skunk, and that is in an almost 30 mile stretch. So during the entire drive to work there is a constant, lingering odor clouding the air. You can practically see the cloud of green stink mingling with the fog that hangs over the fields and farmlands.

Do the skunks know something we don't? Should I be interpreting this behavior as a sign of the end times? It's very disconcerting to witness such senseless carnage and not be able to prescribe a meaning to it. Clearly something is bothering the skunks to the point where they feel compelled to throw themselves in front of oncoming vehicles. I intend to get to the bottom of this mystery. It may take months, years even, but I am determined to uncover the source of the skunks' angst. And while I may not be able to cure it, I'm sure there are skunk researchers and scientists who will be anxious to remedy this tragic situation. Or perhaps the world will end and we'll know the skunks were trying to tell us something.